Gov. Tim Walz was criticized last week by more than a few struggling restaurant owners — and patrons — who expected him to let them open on June 1.
Instead, Walz recommended that restrictions continue on Minnesota’s restaurants, cafes and taprooms. He allowed outdoor seating plus takeout service to begin next week. But that won’t revive a languishing industry.
A broader opening is a likely bet later in June. Still, it’s easy to sympathize with threatened owners; some have announced closings.
“I believe it’s not about the governor, it’s about people feeling comfortable,” said Abdirahman Kahin, a Somali refugee in 1997 who built Afro Deli into a chain of four restaurants in the Twin Cities, anchored by its 100-seat flagship in downtown St. Paul.
“I don’t think the public was sure about restaurants,” Kahin said late last week as the fallout from Walz’s decision continued being discussed on talk radio and at the Capitol itself. “We see a lot of mixed messages politically. And different policies in different states.”
He said restaurants are risky for many reasons and that owners like himself face difficult choices as they prepare to welcome patrons for more than takeout service.
“To a certain extent, it may be best to wait another few weeks,” he said. “We plan to be ready to start at 30% or 40% or 50% of capacity. For now, we start on the patio. And we pray that the virus passes and there is not another wave.”
Kahin, who is 45, may be in better shape than many independent restaurateurs. The business is notable for low profit margins and unrelenting pressures from landlords and diners. Few owners put aside sufficient reserves for trouble like the outbreak has caused.
Afro Deli typically generated 50% of its revenue from takeout orders made by office workers and students.
Today, the business is only generating about 15% of its normal revenue. But it has grown markedly in volume in recent weeks after Kahin decided to participate in an effort to feed the hungry, regardless of payment.
Kahin was noticed early in this crisis for charitable work.
He started preparing free meals for delivery to elderly shut-ins in public housing near the University of Minnesota, delivered by youth groups he supports in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, including students from Augsburg University, the University of St. Thomas and the University of Minnesota, some of whom grew up in the neighborhood.
He was connected by local government officials to Twin Cities Metro Meals on Wheels, which has nearly tripled its output to meet demand among elderly clients in public housing, the unemployed and working poor.
In the kitchens of two Afro Deli locations, Kahin and his colleagues are preparing 1,200 meals daily of lean meat and vegetables that can suffice for two meals. He financed more than $100,000 worth of food himself, before his first check arrived from Meals on Wheels last week that amounts to $6 per meal.
Afro Deli also received a $240,000 forgivable loan in the Small Business Administration’s Payroll Protection Plan, a relief program for businesses. More than 40 of his 50 employees returned in April. It’s an international workforce, rooted in the U.S., Mexico and East Africa.
“About half the meals, for the elderly, are subsidized through Medicaid, and it helps people stay in their homes,” said Patrick Rowan, chief executive of Metro Meals on Wheels.
“The pandemic hit and we’re dealing with the most vulnerable populations, including in Kahin’s community. Nutrition is critical. Kahin has the background, capacity, connections and authentic food.”
Kahin handles delivery at no charge with about 125 volunteer drivers, a mix of customers, college students and teens from community organizations.
“The younger children see them and they want to help,” Kahin said. “It is inspiring to help the elderly and the poor.”
Every volunteer gets a free meal.
“It feels good to cook seven days a week in our kitchens, and to watch the workers and volunteers, especially during Ramadan, the month of fasting and giving,” Kahin said. “What we give is multiplied by others.
“I’m operating right now like a nonprofit. Six dollars a meal doesn’t cover the food-and-labor costs. But I’m operating. People are cooking. And it feels good to feed grateful people.”
Kahin doesn’t have the resources to continue at this cash-draining pace for long.
He is a hardworking optimist who believes his business will gradually revive this summer and fall.
And good works will remain an integral part of the business model at Afro Deli.